With the first round of pre-season testing in the books, the fuzzy picture of the upcoming Formula One campaign is becoming clearer, although not focused enough to make any solid bets.
The first test often offers little insight into how the cars compare in relation to each other, as the teams spend the sessions proofing developments and playing cat and mouse with the competition.
The best overall lap over the four days was clocked by Ferrari's Felipe Massa, who put up a time of one minute 17.879 seconds on the 13-turn, 4.428-kilometre Circuito de Jerez in Spain. Lotus' Kimi Räikkönen was second, followed by Force India reserve driver Jules Bianchi.
Although Massa's time may be an indication the Ferrari designers have solved the rear downforce issue that plagued the scarlet car throughout 2012, assuming that the Scuderia will be quickest once the season begins in Australia next month would be foolish at best. The 19-race F1 season starts March 17 in Melbourne and ends Nov. 24 in São Paulo, Brazil.
Remember that last season, Romain Grosjean topped the timesheets following the first F1 test at the same circuit, but the Lotus driver was not a threat to win on most weekends. When it all played out, Lotus was the best of the rest, finishing a distant fourth in constructor points behind front runners Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.
Lotus scored one victory late in 2012 care of 2007 world champion Räikkönen, and managed 10 podiums in 20 races. Räikkönen was third overall in the driver's standings. While a good season, the Lotus was not eight-tenths quicker than the Red Bulls and McLarens when the season began as it had been in the first test.
Nevertheless, if Ferrari can supply two-time world champion Fernando Alonso with a quicker version of the 2012 car, it would not be crazy to think he will be a title contender this year. Alonso was easily the best driver of 2012, racing a slow-but-bulletproof Ferrari to within three points of winning the world championship against the much quicker Red Bull of reigning three-time champion Sebastian Vettel.
The Red Bull squad should start 2013 where it left off last year, with its genius technical boss Adrian Newey expected to deliver the car that the rest will have to beat to win the title. Although they started last year a bit slowly, Red Bull came on in the second half and Vettel overtook Alonso in the stretch to win his third title.
A safe guess would have the McLaren team joining Red Bull in the catbird's seat at the start of the year, as long as it can avoid the on track troubles and mechanical issues that robbed the team of a better 2012 season. McLaren finished third in the 2012 constructors' standings, with its drivers Lewis Hamilton fourth and Jenson Button fifth overall in points.
While Button opened the test by posting the top time on the first day, he also saw his McLaren run into mechanical issues which limited his running to 37 laps. In 2012, McLaren likely had the quickest overall car but the team always seemed to run into problems that prevented its drivers from getting the most out of the package.
The McLaren squad will also be adjusting to life without 2008 world champion Hamilton, who left the team at the end of last season to join Mercedes. He was replaced by Sauber driver Sergio Pérez.
On an emotional level, it would be fitting to have McLaren finish as world champions this year to coincide with the team celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding by Kiwi legend Bruce McLaren. He died in a June 1970 testing accident at the Goodwood Circuit.
As his former team marks a historic year, Hamilton arrives at a Mercedes team that seems to have also carried over its reliability issues from last year. In 2012, it had five retirements due to mechanical issues – all of them by seven time world champion Michael Schumacher – in 20 races.
The first two days of the test didn't bode well for Hamilton, who watched his new outfit struggle as it put the new Mercedes through its paces. To open the test, his new teammate Nico Rosberg recorded only 11 laps before a fire caused by an electrical problem ended his day. The second day didn't go much better, with Hamilton crashing into a barrier due to a rear brake failure.
Although new team boss Niki Lauda, a three-time world champion, told reporters last week that Mercedes would be fighting for top-3 spots all season, it will more likely be battling over fourth overall in the constructors' standings with Force India, Lotus and Sauber.
While Mercedes doesn't look to be moving up, Sauber may actually be the wild card in 2013 after unveiling a car with a trick sidepod design that could be the innovation to beat. The narrow packaging of the radiators has the sidepod width reduced significantly, which should translate into a much more aerodynamically slippery car. The design should also channel air flow more efficiently toward the back of the car, which should help increase downforce.
Some feel the development may be the 2013 version of the double diffuser, an innovation pioneered by the Brawn (now Mercedes) team in 2009 that made its car unbeatable for the first half of the season. Button took his maiden driver's title that year for Brawn, which also won the constructors' crown handily. The diffuser is a downforce creating element at the back of the chassis that channels air from the under the car.
If this is actually the case, the times from Jerez didn't reflect it. Sauber's best time was put in by rookie Esteban Gutierrez, who ended the four-day test sixth best overall time, which was about eight-tenths off Massa's top effort. The Swiss team ended 2012 sixth overall in points.
On the other hand, Sauber just might be playing possum until the first race of the year. If the new design works as many feel it should, Sauber will be sitting pretty, because unlike the double diffuser, the other teams would need to completely redesign their cars to copy the narrow sidepods.
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